Dunfermline Press

‘It’s a banger of a play...! If you voted Tory, or if you are a Tory... don’t come!’

- By Ally McRoberts Reporter amcroberts@dunfermlin­epress.co.uk

COMEDIAN Mark Thomas is a tour de force in a hard-hitting one-man play, England & Son, that you can win tickets to see in Edinburgh.

Acting is a big departure for the 60-year-old and although he’s “loving it”, he explains, in a widerangin­g interview touching on everything from Clydebank FC to Cromwell, clean rooms to Coca Cola, exactly why we won’t see him in Eastenders any time soon.

“I’m 60 now and I’ve been doing this for 37 years. I haven’t got a f ***** career, I don’t give a s***.

“I’m very happy. I don’t want to go on the telly, I don’t want to do an advert, I don’t want to get a sketch series, I couldn’t give a f*** about podcasts, Radio Four can stick their comedy hour up their backsides.

“I don’t want to do any of those things. All I want to do is stuff that I like.

“We’re supposed to be creative artists and we spend our time wondering what people who commission things want? F*** that.” Mark Thomas is in a good mood.

He’s lounging on the sofa with a cup of tea and talking on the phone to the Press.

The play he performed at the fringe in the summer, England & Son, is back in Edinburgh next week and we’ve got a pair of tickets to give away for the performanc­e at the Traverse Theatre on Wednesday December 6 at 8pm.

Having watched it in the capital, I can tell you it’s brilliant, but he can explain it better than me. “It’s a banger of a play! You won’t have seen anything like it.

“If you want a quiet night out, don’t come. If you voted Tory, or if you are a Tory, don’t come!

“For me, the play is an emotional 15 rounds. There are bits which are funny, bits which are playful, bits that are really gutting.

“It’s a play about ... childhood chances. And the lack of them. It’s a play about empire, it’s a play about fathers and sons.

“It’s about violence and how generation­al violence can move. And it’s about the impact of trauma on children.”

At the heart of England & Son - the main character’s surname is England - is a small working-class boy yearning for approval, a smile or a ruffle of the hair, from his dad.

What unfolds is a relentless and captivatin­g tale of domestic violence, juvenile offending, drug-taking, homelessne­ss, theft, jail, alcohol abuse, tragedy and death.

The play was written for Mark by awardwinni­ng playwright Ed Edwards.

“Some of it is based on my dad and some on Ed’s dad, as well as people we know.

“Ed has been in prison. I always say that makes him interestin­g.

“As far as I’m concerned there are two types of playwright­s in the world, those that have seen the inside of a prison cell and those who should.”

He’s pleased that the play has attracted people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre - “I think I’m a gateway drug. I’m the cannabis of theatre!” - and blames Oliver Cromwell, who tried to ban Christmas and shut theatres 300-odd years ago, for turning it into something that was seen as “only for the rich”.

There were 24 performanc­es of England & Son in November, he’s at the Traverse from December 5 to 9, and next year they’re taking the play to new audiences, inside prisons and then Australia, before a return to the Edinburgh fringe in the summer with a new standup show.

They’re also planning on running workshops with addicts and discussion­s on the issues raised in the show.

“If we can keep the prisoners out of their cells for six or seven hours, that’s a win, as they’ve got 23-hour bang up just now.

“We’re currently being cleared by the prison system which takes a bit of time as Ed’s obviously been inside and I’m not exactly unknown ...”

One of those major issues is drugs and Mark said: “I’m really pleased Glasgow has its first legit clean room, and I know it’s a pilot scheme, but the vast majority of people in central Glasgow who take heroin are homeless. There’s not actually a huge number of homeless people in central Glasgow taking heroin, which is where the room is. The vast majority of addicts are in Easterhous­e and Drumchapel, shooting up in garages and lock-ups.

“They’re not going to pay £5 to travel into the centre of Glasgow to use the clean room. “So I understand it’s a pilot and I really hope they adopt it and start moving these rooms out to where the users are.

“Because what people fail to realise is drug and alcohol abuse in this country is f ****** endemic. And no-one cares. No-one in authority cares.

“No-one will touch the drugs issue and say ‘Maybe we should look at decriminal­ising drugs, maybe we should treat this as a health issue, a mental health issue, a societal issue rather than a criminal issue’.

“Maybe if we took the power away from the gangs by having clean, good drugs on prescripti­on, maybe it would reduce the huge endemic of crime that exists on the back of it, the thievery, mugging, burglary, all that kind of stuff, a massive amount of it is drug related.” He’s hoping for real change as a result of the clean room pilot scheme in Glasgow but, on a lighter note, he’s also keen on a return fixture in the city for different reasons.

“I’m going to see Clydebank play when I come up because I support AFC Wimbledon and we’re a fanowned club so when I come up I try and see clubs that are a little bit like us.

“They’re a fan owned club and I went to see them before when I was at the Tron. It was one of the best days I’ve had in ages. It was proper old school football, no seats, there’s terracing, half of it’s got a roof, half of it hasn’t and half of it has barely got a back wall with bits of breezebloc­k to sit on. “It was full of mums and kids and prams and grandads. The Beith coach came out and started swinging, got sent off after the game, the ultras are all nine-year-olds with banners made out of bed sheets - you could see the elasticate­d corners on one of them - and they’re all running on the pitch.

“What they’ve done in saving their club is superb. It was a brilliant day.”

He’ll find a slot in a hectic schedule for football, but admits he has no time for TV.

Last year, during lockdown, he and producer Geoff Atkinson hosted a look back at the Mark Thomas Comedy Product, which ran for six series on Channel Four from 1996 to 2003.

Hilarious and controvers­ial in equal measure, he doesn’t believe it would get commission­ed now. Described as “a brilliantl­y ludicrous alternativ­e to Watchdog” it was a mix of satire and political expose, focusing on injustice, corruption, dodgy politician­s and cover-ups from big business.

“There is a lot of fondness I have for it but it was exhausting. We did 45 programmes plus specials and one-offs in approximat­ely six years. We were going hell for leather.”

He interviewe­d MPs dressed as a bear, tried to undercut McDonald’s by selling burgers next door, bet the production budget on a horse (and lost), exposed radioactiv­e pigeon poo at Sellafield, held a cannabis surgery with Jack Straw and set up a PR company at an arms fair.

Mark also found out about his own MI5 file, got Adidas to attend a debate on conditions in clothing factories in Indonesia, discovered the illegal pesticides in use in the UK, shamed companies dumping expired drugs in poor countries, posed as a right wing farmer and even wrote a book about his investigat­ions into Coca Cola.

Not surprising­ly, TV bosses got very nervous.

“The number of lawyers we had ... I literally stood next to the stage, I could be seen by everyone in the audience, we’re two minutes from starting and I’ve been there for 10 minutes already listening to a lawyer, and arguing with a lawyer, about what I could say and get away with.

“We would talk and discuss things up until 30 seconds before I went on stage. We had some scrapes but by the end I wasn’t enjoying it. I thought ‘Why am I putting myself under this much pressure and I’m not enjoying it?’

“I lived and breathed the show. I’d be up at 3am so I could get a car to Cumbria and doorstep an MP after his toast.

“It was a punishing schedule so, at the moment, while this show is quite tiring, it’s not as stupid as that was!”

With another 75-minute stint on stage looming, and our mugs long empty, the chat is drawing to a close as Mark reflects: “People say ‘What’s your best achievemen­t’ and apart from keeping breathing, I think it’s the fact I’ve had 37 years as a performer and I’ve seen and done all this different stuff and I haven’t done what was expected of me.

“I’ve done what I wanted. There’s been a few f***-ups but, you know, I’ve still got a flat.”

You can buy tickets for the show at trav erse.co.uk.

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